Given that the Cincinnati Bengals defense had just done something no one had accomplished since 2009 — preventing the New England Patriots from scoring a touchdown — head coach Marvin Lewis thought it would be appropriate to do something he almost never does.
Standing in the middle of the locker room following the team’s 13-6 victory against New England on Sunday, Lewis awarded a game ball for just the third time in his 11-year career, handing it to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
But if you think Zimmer took the ball home and cradled it while he slept, you don’t know Zimmer.
“It’s still down in the coaches’ locker room,” Zimmer said Monday afternoon. “I didn’t even take it home. It really didn’t have anything to do with me. The players did all the stuff.”
What the players did, in addition to keeping the Patriots out of the end zone for the first time in four years, was make New England quarterback Tom Brady look ordinary.
The Bengals defense held the future Hall of Famer to 18-of-38 passing for 197 yards and snapped his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 52, two shy of Drew Brees’ NFL record.
Brady’s 52.2 passer rating was his lowest since posting a 51.5 in 2007, and his 47.4 completion percentage was his lowest in a game in which he attempted at least 20 passes since 2003 when he completed only 44.1 percent against Dallas when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator there.
“It was great to see him get the game ball, and we were super happy for him because he coaches his (guts out),” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “He gets us so ready for the game. From Monday through Saturday he coaches us so well that on Sunday it’s the easy part.”
Two of the three game balls Lewis has presented have gone to Zimmer. His first came in 2009 when the Bengals went to Baltimore and won 17-14 just three days after the sudden death of Zimmer’s wife, Vikki.
Sunday’s presentation obviously was far less emotional. But despite the dismissive nature in which Zimmer talked about the game ball, the players could knew it meant something to him.
“Zim doesn’t get emotional, but he had a little smirk on him,” linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. “It’s good to see Zim laugh because he’s always so serious. He deserves it. He made great defensive calls out there. He knew what we were expecting from them and called great plays.”
Unlike the win against Green Bay two weeks ago when the Bengals willingly gave up some plays in the run game to focus on stopping quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Sunday’s game saw them shut down all aspects of the New England offense, limiting the Patriots to 248 total yards.
“His gameplan was really crisp,” cornerback Adam Jones said. “It was a great gameplan. Unbelievable. He put us in the right spots at the right time.”
The key, Zimmer said, was not deception and confusion. It was simple execution.
“We don’t really disguise much,” Zimmer said. “What we do is we try to line up the same all the time, so that’s really our kind of disguise. We’ve got two guys in the A gap and two guys down and a middle-of-the-field safety and we do different things off of that.”
The plan added up to a gem of a performance and the presentation of the game ball. The only other one Lewis has handed out went to team owner Mike Brown in 2003 — Lewis’ first season as coach — after the Bengals beat the 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs.
Zimmer accepted the ball, but not the praise. He said the players are the ones who make the difference, and as proof he cited something he wrote a few years ago that has become a regular part of his pregame routine.
“Every week I have a prayer that I say: ‘Let me make the right calls, the correct adjustments. Let the players play smart with great effort and great unity.’ And as long as they do that, then I’m good,” Zimmer said. “There’s more to it than that. I say it about 100 times before the game. It helps calm me down.”